Neil Armstrong: What Really Happened on the Moon

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If I ever wrote, “Today Neil Armstrong wrote in to say…” you can safely assume I’m either a) off my medication or b) I’d just won the space blogging equivalent of the lottery. For NPR blogger Robert Krulwich, it’s the latter.

In an article he wrote for “Krulwich Wonders…,” Krulwich pondered why the 1969 Apollo 11 astronauts didn’t venture more than 90 yards from the Lunar Module. With a whole moon to explore, you’d think Armstrong and Aldrin would be hopping up the nearest mountain, or spelunking down a lunar skylight. Right?

PHOTOS: First Manned Lunar Landings

It turns out that his wondering thoughts didn’t go unanswered. NASA astronaut legend Neil Armstrong decided to respond to Krulwich’s blog by sending him a long email with an uncharacteristically chatty tone.

In the message, Armstrong gave a wonderfully vivid explanation as to what it was like on the lunar surface and why Buzz and himself were limited by what they could do. Although much of Armstrong’s text is a matter of historical record, as Krulwich says, “reading between the lines, I kinda think he wanted to do more, go further.”

I personally found it really interesting to read a first-hand account of the harshness of the lunar environment. Also, I marveled at the amazing complexity of the 1960′s technology they were using.

“It is true that we were cautious in our planning,” Armstrong says in the email. “There were many uncertainties about how well our Lunar module systems and our Pressure suit and backpack would match the engineering predictions in the hostile lunar environment.”

To ensure the Apollo astronauts stayed cool — yes, cool, as pointed out by Armstrong: “We were operating in a near perfect vacuum with the temperature well above 200 degrees Fahrenheit” — NASA had designed a water-cooling system that pumped water around the astronauts’ bodies. But this was the first time it was being used, so there were uncertainties about its performance.

To verify the cooling system’s performance after a lunar walk, the astronauts got back into the re-pressurized lunar module and “were able to drain and measure the remaining water in the backpacks to confirm the predicted,” he points out.

To minimize any unforeseen incidents, the pair had a strict mission plan, but that didn’t mean Armstrong didn’t stray just a little:

Preflight planners wanted us to stay in TV range so that they could learn from our results how they could best plan for future missions. I candidly admit that I knowingly and deliberately left the planned working area out of TV coverage to examine and photograph the interior crater walls for possible bedrock exposure or other useful information. I felt the potential gain was worth the risk.

SEE ALSO: Obama ‘Poorly Advised’ on Space: Armstrong

Although Armstrong is well-known for avoiding the public’s gaze (in stark contrast with his Apollo partner’s rapping, dancing and punching escapades), he has recently been very politically active in his defense of plans to return NASA astronauts to the moon. He reiterates his position on the matter:

During my testimony in May I said, “Some question why Americans should return to the Moon. “After all,” they say “we have already been there.” I find that mystifying. It would be as if 16th century monarchs proclaimed that “we need not go to the New World, we have already been there.” [...] Americans have visited and examined 6 locations on Luna, varying in size from a suburban lot to a small township. That leaves more than 14 million square miles yet to explore. (Read the whole email on Krulwich Wonders…)

Of course, Armstrong has a point. Just because we’ve been to the moon doesn’t mean we needn’t go back. There’s a huge number of reasons why we should go back — from using the moon as a low-gravity staging post for deep space missions to prospecting for rare materials such as Helium-3, a promising isotope to fuel fusion power.

ANALYSIS: Are We Going Back to the Moon?

Unfortunately, like all space endeavors, a return mission to the moon is steeped in political spin. The potential science returns are an afterthought. Today we are aiming to send astronauts to an asteroid by the “mid-2020′s,” where will NASA be instructed to send them tomorrow?

Although the Apollo era was driven by Cold War political posturing, it’s hard not to be moved by Armstrong’s description of the ultimate adventure he lived through over 40 years ago. It might be some time before we go back.

Addendum: I noticed that Armstrong mentioned nothing about this little detour he supposedly made during the Apollo 11 mission:

I agree with Robert Lamb when he tweeted about this earlier today: “This trailer looks pretty cool till “Michael Bay” and a transformer show up in it” — I was hoping for another awesome space movie like “Apollo 13″ or “Moon.” Nope, it’s another “Transformers” movie. Oh well.

Note: Perhaps it’s a bad edit in the trailer, but you’ll notice that mission control switches off transmission (so Armstrong and Aldrin can investigate the alien ship) and the legendary Walter Cronkite says, “We have confirmation of loss of signal from Apollo 11. Apollo 11 is on the far side of the moon.”

Just for the record, the astronauts landed on the near side of the moon, they never disappeared around the far side because the moon is tidally locked with the Earth (i.e. the near side is always facing us). While on the surface, Apollo 11 could always be in contact with Earth. They only lost signal when they were in orbit around the moon before and after landing.

If this basic science error made it into the movie, I’d suggest Michael Bay hires a competent science adviser for “Transformers 4″ (please no).

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